Module Leader Keith Edwards Social Policy

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Charles Murray was invited to England in 1990 to observe and discover if there was an underclass phenomenon in the United Kingdom similar to the one he had identified in the United States. The Sunday times published the results of his investigation on the 26th of November 1989, and later on it was republished by the conservative party committee of experts ( the Institute for Economic Affairs, IEA ) as the emerging British Underclass. In these documents Murray demonstrated that: "Britain does have an underclass, still largely out of sight and still smaller than the one in the United States. But it is growing rapidly." (Murray, 1990: 3).

In his study the underclass is described by the frequency of the following elements: Illegitimate births, high crime rates (particularly violent crime) and drop-out from the labour market. This is supported by Murray's quote stating that: "If illegitimate births are the leading indicator of an underclass and violent crime a proxy measure of its development, the definitive proof that an underclass has arrived is that large numbers of young, healthy, low-income males choose not to take jobs." (1990: 17).

However Murray disagrees strongly about some of the findings of the committee of experts which stated that "in communities without fathers, the kids tend to run wild.. Children having no set bedtime. ...being left alone in the house at night while mummy goes out. 18-month-old toddler allowed to play in the street" (1990: 12, emphasis added). He disagreed because he thinks that the types of problems named earlier are not unique to single parents but instead he stated that researchers should instead "talk to parents who have lived in both kinds of communities. Ask them whether there is any difference in child-raising between a neighbourhood composed mostly of married couples and a neighbourhood composed mostly of single mothers. ...the overwhelming response is that the difference is large and palpable. The key to an underclass is not the individual instance but a situation in which a very large proportion of an entire community lacks fathers, and this is far more common in poor communities than in rich ones." (Murray, 1990: 12-13).

This research plan is based on Murray's challenge, and the research question is: "Is there a significant difference between married couples and single mothers vis-à-vis to child upbringing?”


Charles Murray's underclass thesis, briefly outlined in the Introduction, is representative of a new wave of conservative discourse about the poor. It is a behavioural, rather than socio-structural approach, in that it defines the underclass in terms of individual behaviour in much the same way as Henry Mayhew (1862) defined the 'dishonest', or undeservingpoor in the 19th century. This approach exonerates the polity and the economy of any responsibility for the "conditions which have led to vast numbers of people being consigned to structural unemployment, poverty and marginalisation."(Woolner, 2000b:18). Such abdication of responsibility, however, is not without its consequences; as noted by Zygmunt Bauman: "Whenever certain persons or categories of people are denied the right to our moral responsibility, they are treated as 'lesser humans', 'flawed humans', 'not fully human', or downright 'non-human'." (Bauman, 1990: 138),with potentially dire consequences for the social order. ( Gans, 1990; Woolner, 1999).


From the foregoing review of the literature it can be seen that Murray's thesis represents a positivistic approach, focusing on the attitudes and behaviours of individual actors and ignoring the meaning they attach to their actions, to the exclusion of the wider social structure. This is a one-sided focus on the role of informal social control within the family, ignoring the influences of injustices within the other social institutions, such as the polity and the economy, and the key role played by the formal agencies of control, the police and the criminal justice system. Such a one-sided focus is seen as inadequate in addressing the issue of youth crime in a research report produced for the UK Home Office by Graham and Bowling, who note:

"... it is known that interventions which focus exclusively on one particular arena (eg the home) or one actor (the child or the parent) do not appear to be effective in the long term (...), it would seem that an effective criminality prevention strategy must also extend into areas outside the family." (Graham and Bowling, 1995: 88; see also Young, 1999). The theoretical framework of the proposed research is that of left realism (Young, 1997), which does not view the individual or the family as autonomous of the wider society (Currie, 1985), and perceives the social institutions referred to above as being inter-dependent and inter-related (Rosenfeld and Messner, 1995).


In line with Murray's challenge to go out and ask parents, it is proposed to conduct this research project using qualitative methods which, according to Marshall and Rossman, "have become increasingly important modes of inquiry for the social sciences" (1995: 1). Data will be collected via semi-structured interviews since, as noted by Nigel Fielding: "Whenever we are getting our bearings, whether it is as a researcher or a new arrival in a foreign land, the quickest, most instinctive method is to ask a question." (1993: 135). Since the researcher is not a parent herself, she may aptly be described as a "new arrival in a foreign land".

A qualitative design is chosen over a quantitative procedure despite the fact that a questionnaire could be devised for a survey to measure parenting practices along the lines identified by Murray, that is the extent of supervision, set bed and meal times and parental involvement in education. Such a procedure, however, would fail to gain an understanding of what such practices mean to the respondents, what they involve, and arguably what factors may mitigate against enforcement of such practices in the real world of the parents themselves or, to put it another way, the process of parenting. The purpose of the qualitative approach is, as noted by Lofland: "... to find out what kinds of things are happening rather than to determine the frequency of predetermined kinds of things that the researcher already believes can happen." (Lofland, 1971: 76, cited in Fielding, N, 1993: 137, emphasis added).

The interviews will be semi-standardised as opposed to non-standardised in order to ensure that the issues (referred to above) raised by Murray are covered in each interview. However, it is anticipated that a wide variety of issues related to parenting practices may be revealed by the respondents themselves in the course of the study and the semi-standardised approach offers the opportunity "to elicit rich, detailed materials that can be used in qualitative analysis" (Lofland, 1971: 76, cited in Fielding, N, 1993: 137).

Wherever possible, interviews will be tape-recorded, in accordance with the advice of Nigel Fielding (1993), and because, as noted by Williams: "taking handwritten notes during a conversation warps discussion and inhibits the flow of words" (1990). Notes will, however, be taken as a safety measure "in the event that the recording equipment fails" (Creswell, 1994: 152). Transcription will take place as early as possible after each interview in order to identify emerging themes that may be beneficial to future interviews. Whilst, as noted by Nigel Fielding, "verbatim transcription is ...laborious and time-consuming [it] offers the advantage that all possible analytic uses are allowed for" (1993: 146). Although transcription of tape-recorded interviews can be a costly exercise, the researcher is a professional shorthand/typist and can undertake this task herself, offering the benefit of listening through the interview again, which will enhance the possibility of identifying emerging themes.

Data Collection

Whilst it is implied in the challenge that the research should be directed only to married parents, and indeed to parents, this would seriously skew the data in favour of Murray's thesis, since at the present time there has been a media-led moral panic about teenage parenthood and welfare dependency, fuelled no doubt by Murray's own work. Instead, it is proposed to select a sample of both married parents living together and single mothers living alone, and interview them about their child-rearing practices. A housing estate in a poor area North London has been identified as being composed of a mixture of married couples with children and single mothers. This was identified through contacts living on the estate who are actively involved in the local community, running a youth club and mother and toddler group. It is intended that as many people as possible will be interviewed, and it is hoped that a sample of thirty will be identified, equally divided between single mothers raising children alone, and married couples sharing parental responsibilities. In this regard it must be noted that the presence of both biological parents in the home does not imply that they are equally or actively involved in parenting their children (see for example Connell, 1987; Friedan, 1963; Segal, 1997). In addition, of course, single parents may be receiving considerable support in their parenting task from parents, relatives and friends, and even from absent biological fathers and their families.

Respondents will be interviewed, face-to-face, by the researcher in their own homes or in the community centre office, to which the researcher has secured access for the purpose, depending on their preference. They will be assured of complete confidentiality and anonymity and an explanation of the study will be done including the reasons.

The researcher will offer the respondents a copy of Murray's (2000) article in The Sunday Times to explain the context of the research and to elicit their views on its content. A time limit is not being placed on the interviews, since it is felt that respondents should be allowed to talk and share their experiences at their own pace. They will be questioned in an informal, non-judgemental manner, about the issues identified by Murray, for example whether their children have regular meal and bed times, what arrangements are made for supervision when the parent(s) are out at night, whether children are allowed to play in the street. In addition other indicators based on a review of the literature on parental involvement and juvenile delinquency (mentioned above), such as assistance with homework, attendance at school for parent evenings, and the amount of television children are allowed to watch. But, for example, whereas the question "Who minds the children when you go out at night?" may be interpreted as judgemental, an alternative approach would be to ask "Do you get out much in the evenings?", and then, based on the response, probe the issue of babysitting arrangements. Questions relating to the employment status of the parent(s) will also be included to establish any potential parenting problems, in the perception of the respondents, associated with full-, part-time, or un-employment.

In return for the introductions and access afforded to her by contacts on the estate, the researcher has offered her assistance in running the mother and toddler group for two mornings and the youth club for one evening, giving her an opportunity to observe children's behaviour first hand. In addition she has agreed to word process one issue of the quarterly community centre newsletter.

Data analysis

If the maximum of thirty respondents is achieved, a considerable volume of interview transcripts is anticipated. This will be subjected to manual analysis, in the first instance, in order to identify emerging themes and relate these to issues identified in the literature, in the process of developing a 'grounded theory' (Strauss and Corbin, 1990, cited in Creswell, 1994).

Ethical Issues

Issues identified as potentially problematic from an ethical point of view centre around engaging with Murray's underclass theory at all. Gans (1990), for example, warns of the dangers of the very term underclass, with its racial undertones (especially in America), and its notion of underservingness. Gans is concerned that social policy makers, and planners, will begin to produce policies and plans around an alleged underclass, resulting in increased marginalisation, maybe even withdrawing services from people so defined. If the results of the research findings were taken as proof that there are in fact differences in parenting practices, which favour the traditional normative standard family model (Connell, 1987: 121) over single parents, then it might result in policies, like those that exist in some States in the US, where benefits are withdrawn from single mothers on the birth of their second child, forcing women to abort, for example; or zoning policies like those implied by Murray that:

". ..make it as easy as possible for people who share values to live together. If people in one neighbourhood think marriage is an outmoded institution, fine; let them run their neighbourhood as they see fit. But make it easy for the couple who thinks otherwise to move into a neighbourhood where two-parent families are valued." (Murray, 1990: 34).

However, by taking a socio-structural approach to analysing the data such as that taken by William Julius Wilson (1987, noted above), rather than an individualistic, behavioural approach, it is anticipated that this problem will be overcome when writing up the research report.


This research project is limited by both time constraints and lack of resources, in that it must be conducted over a six-month tirneframe by a single researcher, acting alone. These limitations severely restrict the size of the sample population and confine the project to a single social housing estate in North London. In view of this, the findings of the research are unlikely to be representative of the entire UK population. The researcher is confident, however, that such limitations will in no way diminish the importance of the project, which has the potential to provide a blueprint for future nationwide research into issues of parenting practices and poverty, in light of Murray's continued presence on our national stage.

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